Even that heading is not really true. Most peoples idea of a hero is bravery. Baron von Richthofen, Douglas Bader, Bill Speakman V.C., or even my Uncle Bill. But as I wrote in my life story, I do know that in the R.A.F. I learnt more about life as it was expressed by older war veterans, who came out with classic words that put my boyhood dreams of heroism, into reality. As one officer said one night "There's only three ways to win a V.C.! Your completely desperate, your pissed out of your brain, or you haven’t the sense you were born with! You haven’t lived until you’ve shit yourself over the Ruhr”. I think these were the words of a normal man, living a far from normal life, under the strain of war.
My heroes are people I would aspire to be. Laughter is high on my list. The talent they possess, usually natural, is in abundance. The ability to give pleasure to millions of people. Behind the picture you see, the words you hear and the enjoyment you receive, is often a complex story. Often people are driven by an inner desire, some hide behind a persona, some are the same on stage as off stage. And some just fill you with joy. For instance William John Owen Rowbotham. Better known as Bill Owen, the man who became a hero to a generation of OAPs like me, he was Compo from the television series, "Last of the summer wine".
Bill's character of Compo Simmonite became reality to many viewers. A man born in Acton Green in West London became a Yorkshire man. As quoted in "Ayup! On line". "He seemed to appear in every black and white movie we saw on the telly from then on. (he was in 46 films) Always this cheeky cockney sparrer apples'n'pears knees-up-mother-brown bloke in war films, romantic dramas and even Disney movies. And he wasn't even called Bill Owen then. It was Bill Rowbotham, son of a bloke that drove a London tram". It was a lifetime of experience of acting, that accumulated in a perfect performance of a perfect character. It was Bill's wish to be buried in Holmfirth the central location for the entire series. It became his adopted home & where he too, was adopted by the towns people for his immersion into the part of a Yorkshireman and his involvement in the town itself. His grave in St. John's church overlooks Holmfirth. Only Compo would be laid to rest in a place called Upperthong!
At Bill's memorial service in London, co-star Peter Sallis, who plays the character of Clegg, said it was a shame Bill never won an award for his portrayal of Compo - "the finest comic creation of its time" he said. "No-one presented anything, certainly not on television, to match it. Year after year I waited for it to be recognised but it never was. You could rank that creation against the best of them - including Chaplin. I always thought it was an injustice that he never won an award for best comic performance. Is there room for a posthumous award? It would be a happy gesture." This from a man who still plays one of the most perfect parts of that excellent team! Brilliantly cast as "a retired Lino salesman from the Co-operative" Peter was like the nut or rivet on those huge scissors that could cut that very lino. Without him, it didn't work. Another actor of immense comedic talent from years of work in the theatre, TV & film.
Bill died in July 1999. Peter Sallis is alive and suffers from macular degeneration. (a medical condition predominantly found in elderly adults in which the centre of the inner lining of the eye, known as the macula area of the retina, suffers thinning, atrophy, and in some cases bleeding). Due to increasing frailty and difficulty with his sight, his appearances in the episodes are not as prolific as they once were. Clegg remains central to the storylines but is often seen only at the beginning, middle and end of the episode. He is currently filming the 29th series of the show which will be aired in BBC1 in 2008. He was awarded an OBE in the Queen's 2007 Birthday Honours list for services to Drama.
One common factor in all my heroes, they all appear to have more talent under the nail of their little finger than I have ever had in my lifetime. I try so hard to write a web page & one of them can write lines like: "Life's not fair, is it? Some of us drink champagne in the fast lane, and some of us eat our sandwiches by the loose chippings on the A597." or "Claire Rayner: She's so nice and sympathetic and understanding, you just want to smack her in the face with a broccoli quiche." Victoria Wood is the centre of the universe when it comes to talent. Remember the wonderful character of a sarcastic announcer she invented (Susie Blake)? She got her to issue lines like "We'd like to apologise to our viewers in the North. It must be awful for you." She can create a character so perfect and then cast another Hero, Julie Walters, in the part that gets you get the exquisite Mrs Overall from the equally perfect "Acorn Antiques". She can hold audiences in rucks of laughter by playing & singing songs she wrote. She is a songwriter, pianist, stand-up comedian, author. Writes for the theatre, a musical & several TV dramas (as well as playing in them). She can front documentaries. A talent so overwhelming that she can write about normal people in an ordinary job & it becomes cult viewing in a series called "Dinnerladies". It ran on BBC One for 16 episodes from 1998 to 2000. The show has a direct link to Coronation Street with most of the cast having been in the soap. The main ones being:
Anne Reid (Jean)- played Valerie Tatlock/Barlow 1961-1971
Shobna Gulati (Anita) - played Sunita Parekh/Alahan 2001-200
Of course, all these Northerners all live & work in an entertainment industry that has the Granada studio in the centre of the city of Manchester.
Victoria first met long-term collaborator Julie Walters when they appeared in the same theatre revue, In At The Death in 1978. Its success led to the commission of Wood's first play. Wood & Walters very nearly became my idea of a modern Laurel & Hardy. I can think of no higher praise either. They also managed to act seriously together, without any comedy. A thing that Stan & Babe never did.
As you can tell, this is in no order whatsoever! Stan & Babe! Ultimate heroes. True originals.
Stan Laurel was born into the theatre. His father was Arthur Jefferson, a total showman, an actor, director, playwright, manager & theatrical entrepreneur across Great Britain. His mother as an actress of distinction. It was in his blood. He crossed to America with Fred Karno's Pantomime company in 1910, which had amongst its members, Charlie Chaplin. I wonder what ever happened to him? Many people were surprised to discover Stan had red hair, like his father. Of course, how would anyone know on a black & white movie?
Babe Hardy (Oliver Norvell Hardy, the Oliver was actually added later was respect to his father) came from a distinguished Georgian family from Harlem, his dad was a popular lawyer & politician. A very large round guy but very nimble on his feet with a lovely singing voice, he could give one of his looks and you'd crease up. He was also a tireless worker, extremely dependable and uncommonly nice. Because of these traits, he worked all the time. He made an amazing 213 film without Stan! (Stan managed 76). He got the name Babe from an Italian hairdresser. After he'd finished shaving him, he'd rub powder on his skin, patting it & saying "Nice-a Bab-ee. Nice-a Bab-ee" in his thick foreign accent. The studio guys knew the barber was gay & started calling Ollie, Baby, which got shortened to Babe.
They made 105 films between them. They were brought together at the Hal Roach studios and became truly world famous. They were Dick und Doof (Fatty and Stupid) in Germany, Brazil - "O Gordo e O Magro" (Fat and Skinny), Hungary - "Stan és Pan", Spain, Mexico and Latin - "El Gordo y El Flaco" (The Fat One and The Thin One) & in Italy - "Stallio and Ollio".
Stan was the creative one but Babe was an very good comedian and actor. Neither was totally the straight man or stooge, individually they were truly great comedians and each one could provide a foil for the other. They were in a class by themselves & the wonderful thing is, their comedy still holds up today. My favourite films were "The Music box" about the delivery of a piano, "Towed in a hole" when they went into the fish business and "Way out West" a story about the boys going into territory of the Wild West .
Babe died in August 1957 (cerebral thrombosis) & Stan followed in February 1965 by heart attack.
It has to be said that not all my heroes are perfect. Some work hard, their talent gets them lucky & then they just go off the rails.
Sharing the same birthday, love of gadgets & cars, plus being enlisted in the R.A.F. led me to adore the early Peter Sellers. He was a brilliant mimic and his theatre posted read "Radio's Peter Sellers, speaking for the stars". The Goon Show was the beginning of my devotion. He played about 8 main characters but he was still part of an outstanding team. Stardom was still in the distance & he seemed to value & love those early days for the rest of his life. The interview with Parkinson shows flashes of his brilliance but by 1974 he was a megastar. It is said that he transformed into a character before your eyes. He WAS Fred Kite, the union leader in "I'm alright Jack". In a lesser known film "Never let go", he became the sadistic gangster Lionel Meadows. It is thought that taking this man's persona home, led to the collapse of his marriage to his first wife, Anne. Who knows, but reading about him, he was a fatally flawed man who didn't cope with the gifts the God's had given him. His other films that stick with me? "Ladykillers" his joy was to work with his hero, Alec Guinness. "Smallest show on earth". Him, Margaret Rutherford & Bernard Miles stole the film from to two leads, Bill Travers & Virginia McKenna. "Only two can play" A stunning transformation into a Welsh Librarian who needs loving & a better job! "Doctor Strangelove" where he played three rolls & became three different actors. It was unsurpassed! Then, of course, his early films as Inspector Clouseau, in the Pink Panther series. Peter was brilliant as the French detective but by then his personal & professional life were coming apart.
Peter greatly admired Stan Laurel & always claimed that the "Laurel" character was his inspiration when he created the "gardener" character in Being there. He died from heart failure in July 1980.
In the roll of himself, Eric Morecambe said they became an overnight success with his partner Ernie Wise after treading the boards from 1939! They were John Eric Bartholomew and Ernest Wiseman. Eric chose the name Morecambe after where he was born & Ernie just shortened his name at one time his billing was "Ernie Wise, the Jack Buchanan of tomorrow"! Ernie was working in the theatre aged 13 in Jack Hylton's Band Wagon with Arthur Askey. The boys were playing professionally together by the time they were 16, it was 1942 - the war was still on!
They reward for years of stage work, was they became television itself. The 1977 Christmas Show attracted a gargantuan 28 million viewers, that's around half of the total UK population. It was a record for a single light entertainment broadcast in Britain, and one which still stands. Mind you, to get there they had to stand the famous criticism of their first show in 1954 ... " Definition of the week. A TV. set - the box in which they buried Morecambe & Wise" Nothing was easy about this duo's overnight success. Years of hard work, lousy bookings, awful audiences honed their skills until they reached perfection. The classic, in my opinion, as the 1971 show featuring André Previn (called by Eric, Andrew Preview or Privet) André reminisced later that he was conducting a concert in Britain and the Grieg concerto started but had to be stopped because the audience was giggling. He said he knew what they were thinking about and had to give them several minutes to calm down. They coined the phrase "I'm playing all the right notes... but not necessarily in the right order." on that show. It deservedly went down in history. As Eric told André, "Just remember, play it as if we are the only three who don't know this is funny"
This is the time to honour writers. The sometimes, unsung heroes that give other heroes the gems to translate. We know that really good writers do it around the character. Eddie Braben was the third part of this act. Johnny Speight, Dick Hills & Sid Green were there too, on The Eric & Ernie shows.
Eric died May 1984 from a heart attack & Ernie followed in March 1999 from heart failure.
The temptation is to go on & mention brilliant comics, Tony Hancock, Max Miller, Ken Platt, Al Read, Tommy Cooper, Norman Evans (an inspiration for Les Dawson & Roy Barraclough as two elderly women, Cissie Braithwaite and Ada Shufflebotham) Freddy Frinton, the worlds finest drunk act, Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddock as Julian and Sandy, notable for their double entendres and use of the underground gay slang, Polari. What about Eric Sykes? A great actor/comedian but above all, writer, contributing to the Goons & Tony Hancock amongst many more, the list of his credits seem endless. The list grows huge. They all came from the world of radio & variety theatre, some of them transferred on to TV.
Could I think of something that is funny, clever & wish it was that good & I wrote it? It's like meeting Ken Dodd & saying "Oh yes, I've told a few jokes in my time" It was Les Dawson, a truly great comic writer, who came up with the wonderful phrase "The other day I was gazing up at the night sky, a purple vault fretted with a myriad points of light twinkling in wondrous formation, while shooting stars streaked across the heavens, and I thought: I really must repair the roof on this toilet." Oh my god, if only I could write that well! In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, he was voted amongst the top 50 comedy acts ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders.
But is it possible to have a team as your heroes? The team I admire so much is on the old steam radio. Hours of listening pleasure, lots of chuckles, a few belly laughs & undying admiration for "I'm sorry, I haven't a clue- the antidote to panel games" First broadcast on Tuesday 11th April 1972, with the teams being given 'silly things to do' by chairman, Humphrey Lyttelton. Now these guys were writers!
Has there ever been a better chairman? (Kenneth Horne was a classic I know) Is there anything better than the late arrivals? Is there anything more pointless than Mornington Crescent? Does any radio show have bigger, louder & more enthusiastic audiences?
This show is a team. Humphrey Lyttelton, Barry Cryer, Graeme Garden, Tim Brook-Taylor and Willy Rushton. Willy contracted diabetes in the early 1980s, and gave up beer; he became, according to Ingrams, “quite grumpy as a result, but his grumpiness had an admirable and jaunty quality to it”. He went into Cromwell Hospital, Kensington, for heart surgery, and died from complications in December 1996, and many fans of the show miss him so much. He was never replaced & its now customary to have guests instead & the list is endless & varied. The team's timing, outrageous sense of fun & their years in the entertainment business, produces humour from the ether.
Lyttelton continued his role of chairman right up to the end. He passed away on 25 April 2008. (I can hear him now, "What abject nonsense ... the man died, he did pass anything!") Famed for his deadpan, apathetic, disgruntled and occasionally bewildered style of chairmanship, and for his near-the-knuckle double entendres which, despite always being open to an innocent reading, go far further than any other BBC pre-watershed humour. The success of the programme had a big influence on the manner in which comedy was presented on the radio. Humph's persona was a huge part of the success: he was a straight-man surrounded by mayhem, a very similar comedy device to the role of Kenneth Horne in Round the Horne in the 1960s.
I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue developed from the long running radio sketch show I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again. The writers of this show — John Cleese, Jo Kendall, David Hatch, Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke-Taylor and especially Graeme Garden — found that writing a radio series was a lot of work for little reward, and so happened upon the idea of an unscripted show. It was decided that this would take the form of a parody panel game with Garden, Brooke-Taylor, Oddie and Kendall as the panelists, with occasional appearances from others. The reason Humphrey Lyttelton, previously well known as a jazz trumpeter, was selected as the host because the others felt that the role played by improvisation would make the new show the comedy equivalent of jazz.
Your list of heroes could be dancers (I vote for Fred & Ginger), War heroes or headed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel or Jeremy Clarkson, I'm sure everyone is different (thank the Gods).
I'm sure the future will bring more comedy heroes to another age group. The sadly missed Kenny Everett, will Lee Evans become a legend, QI may become the ISIHAC of television.
Should I have picked Billy Connolly and Dawn French?
All I know is that laughter is the best medicine ... unless you diabetic, then it maybe insulin (anon 1984). All I have to do is work as hard as Bill, write like Victoria, be as funny as Stan or Babe, mimic like Peter, time things like Eric & Erne and have a group of mates as funny as "I'm sorry", then I'll be heading in the right direction.
Links for information about my heroes: